Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: The Fragile
Of all the celebrities I admire, the one I'd like to meet the least is Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails. And the reason I never want to meet him is that I would probably turn into a blubbering fool and embarrass both of us. (Or who knows, we have children the same age, maybe we'd just do the parent thing and talk about our kids.) The thing to keep in mind is: Nine Inch Nails fans don't talk about favorite songs--we talk about the songs that saved our lives. Reznor's angsty, anthemic tracks reached out to us at our lowest and let us know that we weren't alone. It's pretty deep, life-affecting stuff when you're an angry, confused fifteen-year-old. (And for what it's worth, the songs-that-saved-my-life for me are A Warm Place from The Downward Spiral and the 9-minute remix of Wish from the Fixed EP. I'd just lie on the ground and switch back and forth between those two songs. Fifteen was a rough year, folks.)
Recorded over two years and released a full five years after The Downward Spiral launched the band to worldwide success, The Fragile is sprawling and ambitious. Twenty-three tracks (eight of which are instrumental) spread over two discs. In addition to the usual Reznor arrangements with distorted drums, fuzzed out guitars, and slightly out-of-tune pianos, The Fragile has orchestral elements, horn sections, and three different choirs. To look at it from the outside, it seems like a piece of hubris rather than art. It should not work. But it does. The whole thing is nearly two hours long, but I get done listening to it and I just want to put it on again. Of the entire Nine Inch Nails catalog, this album is probably the most melodic. Unlike thrash metal, which seeks to take instrumentation and make it noisy, industrial music tends to take noise and try to make it musical. So you get weird elements like the percussion line from the song The Fragile (embedded above) which uses a sample of a chain being dragged as an accent. The song Ripe (With Decay) has buzzing flies on it. This is the era where Reznor would tune all of the strings on his guitar to D (in three different octaves), distort the snot out of it, and just play really fast with his finger barring the entire fretboard, and then do that with two different guitars to make these huge dyad chords. You can hear it to great effect on the last chorus and outro to We're In This Together.
This is also where his lyrics got more introspective. The Downward Spiral was about sex and drugs and, well, spiraling down. It opens with a track called Mr. Self Destruct and ends with a song called Hurt. The message is pretty straightforward there. But here, the songs are more about the messiness of relationships, the joys and the sorrows, the ugliness but also the beauty. The opener Somewhat Damaged is angry about a relationship falling apart: "How can I ever think it's funny how everything you swore would never change is different now?" But then look at the song The Fragile just a few tracks later: "She shines in a world full of ugliness. She matters when everything is meaningless." Now, it's Nine Inch Nails, so there's still going to be some anthemic battle cries and righteous indignation. Look no farther than the chorus of The Wretched: "Now you know, this is what it feels like." Or any of the lyrics from Starfuckers, Inc. But then you get moments like the refrain from The Great Below--"I can still feel you, even so far away" that are just rich with longing and emotion, a sentiment that is then echoed and distorted in the song Underneath It All at the end of the record.
Further Listening: Nine Inch Nails's debut Pretty Hate Machine is excellent, even if it feels a little undercooked. Head Like A Hole, Sanctified, Sin, Down In It, and Something I Can Never Have are all amazing songs. The Downward Spiral contains Nine Inch Nails' biggest hits: Closer and Hurt. Roughly half of that album is utterly brilliant, but there are a handful of songs on the back half that grate on me. Year Zero is a pretty epic album from start to finish, and if not for my affection for The Fragile, it would be the album on this list. It's noisy and overtly political, producing the singles Survivalism and Capital G. Reznor recorded several EPs with his wife Mariqueen Maandig under the monicker How To Destroy Angels. There's a lot of great music that came out of that, but my favorites are A Drowning and Ice Age. Reznor was part of a project called Tapeworm with Tool's Maynard James Keenan. The project was kiboshed, but one of the songs emerged as Passive recorded by A Perfect Circle, and it's quite good. Reznor won an Academy Award for his work on movie scores with Atticus Ross. Of the half-dozen or so they've put out, the best is The Social Network, and I recommend it if you're a fan of instrumental music. Similarly, if you listen to This American Life on NPR, you've likely heard a few tracks from the all-instrumental Nine Inch Nails double-album Ghosts. And if you want a real treat, look for some of Reznor's pre-NIN new-wavy projects.